Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztecs grades vs Hawai’i

SDSU team captains at midfield for the coin toss. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

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Jalen Mayden drops back to pass the ball. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Alabama, Clemson, and San Diego State were each at least 20-point favorites on Saturday. When the opening betting line for this week’s game came out, many wondered if SDSU, a team averaging 19 points a contest, could cover the spread even if its defense shut out the Rainbow Warriors. The odds makers bet that the Aztecs would have success beyond their norms against a Hawai’i team that entered the contest giving up an average of 53.25 points and 292.5 rushing yards against their FBS opponents. Only Clemson covered.

SDSU’s last-minute 16-14 victory over Hawai’i kept SDSU in control of its conference championship destiny. The first benchmark in that pursuit is achieving bowl eligibility. Without Jalen Mayden’s heroics, SDSU’s 12-year (non-Covid) bowl streak would be in danger. While the Aztecs are capable of winning the rest of their games, especially if the offense can build off Saturday’s performance, they will likely be clear favorites in only two more contests. To reach the six-win threshold, they will need to get the expected victories over @Nevada and @New Mexico while finding a way to come out on top in one game @Fresno State, UNLV, SJSU, and Air Force.

San Diego State Offense

Quarterbacks: A+

Jalen Mayden’s play on Saturday was nothing short of legendary. For the 33,073 on hand to witness it, his game will be spoken about for years. Postgame, Mayden was humble and praised his teammates and coaches, but he did what few players anywhere could do. 

Mayden said he was “all-in” on playing safety and was not throwing on the side or in any way preparing for what transpired Saturday. A safety until last week, the Mississippi State transfer was 24-36, 322 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions.

The ease at which Mayden guided the offense stood out as much as anything. With Hawai’i stacking the box to stop the run, the junior safety had receivers in one-on-one coverage, and he made the easy throws. When his first option was covered, he stayed in the pocket, scanned the field, and found open teammates. His best play of the night was a 42-yard pass to Tyrell Shavers.

Shavers lined up in the slot on the right of the formation. Mayden took the snap under center and immediately had blitzing Rainbow Warriors in his face. He evaded the rush by rolling to his left while keeping his eyes downfield. He bought time to allow Shavers to work across the field and then delivered a pass with enough air for his receiver to run under it.

When head coach Brady Hoke approached Mayden about switching back to QB this week, he responded that he was willing to do whatever his coaches needed to help the team. It was the same response he gave when he was originally asked to leave the QB room in January.

“I asked him to do that because at the time he wasn’t in the mix from a quarterback perspective,” coach Hoke said postgame when asked why Mayden switched to safety. “Same thing, though (as asking him to play QB again). I said, ‘would you mind playing safety,’ He said, ‘whatever you need.’ That’s really cool. You don’t see that in this day and age.”

Mayden’s team-first approach was rewarded. While it is easy to think that Saturday’s version would have been available all season or even last year, he played with a confidence and moxie that he did not have in the 2021 Spring Game. He competed on Saturday with an aggressiveness that he potentially learned on the defensive side of the ball. 

Postgame, Hoke would not commit to Mayden as the starter for the Nevada game, but that was likely the same gamesmanship that had everyone believing Braxton Burmeister would play on Saturday.   

Running Backs: C+

Hawai’i was coming off a bye with an extra week to prepare. They geared up to stop the Aztecs’ run game. Jordan Byrd started and was bottled up but provided the only touchdown on the night with a spectacular one-hand grab. Chance Bell led the team with 53 yards on only seven touches. His performance was a welcomed sight. Kenan Christon still lacks the shiftiness to make more of a positive contribution in the chaos of inside runs, but that usually comes with carries, and he is gaining that valuable experience.

On the deep pass from Mayden to Shavers described above, Byrd sprinted to the sideline with an apparent left shoulder or arm injury. The athletic trainers came to his aid, popped the medical tent, and began attending to him. Byrd was unable to return a punt late in the game but displayed his toughness and came out to return a kickoff on SDSU’s final drive of the night. His presence alone forced Hawaii to kick the ball away from him and eventually out of bounds.  Add Byrd to the list of banged-up Aztecs who should benefit from the bye week.  

Tyrell Shavers is tackled following on of his eight completions. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Wide Receivers: A+

The receivers did what they failed to do a week ago, make plays. Some of Mayden’s best passes was putting the ball in the general area of his wideouts and allowing them to work. Shavers was sensational on Saturday, leading the team with eight catches and 149 receiving yards. Both were career highs. Jesse Matthews chipped in 68 yards on six receptions.

In a performance filled with superlatives, Mayden’s willingness to depend on Mekhi Shaw and Brionne Penny in crunch time stands out. Normally, belief in a player is born through practice, but Mayden did not have that luxury. Five of Shaw and Penny’s receptions came on the final series for the Aztecs. They accounted for 36 of the 56 yards on the game-winning drive. Each was a tough grab in traffic and could be something for the offense to build upon moving forward.

Tight End: C

One skill Mayden has always displayed was good pocket awareness. He uses small steps and sets up his protection as he moves through his progressions. Nowhere was this seen better on Saturday than on Mayden’s throws to Mark Redman. On three occasions, SDSU’s QB started with his eyes outside before working his way back to Redman in the middle of the field.

The first was a 12-yard completion on SDSU’s second possession. It would have given the Aztecs a first down, but a late holding call on Josh Simmons negated it. The second was an incompletion on a pass everyone in the stadium thought Redman hauled in but could not. The final was a very veteran throw. Redman had a defender on one side of his body, and Mayden threw it to the other side. SDSU’s tight end used his huge frame to make a good grab. As the game wore on, the skill of Mayden’s passes increased.

Offensive Line: C

Penalties still marred the line’s performance. Simmons had the holding call mentioned above that killed a drive. He added an illegal block below the waist that stopped another. They were far better on false starts with only one, though, the atmosphere had a lot to do with that. Switching from a right-handed QB to a left-handed one is not easy. Mayden is only allowed to move through his progressions if the line is able to sustain their blocks.

Coaching: A-

Even if the scoring total was not different from his predecessor, the start of Jeff Horton’s Grover Cleveland tenure as offensive coordinator had some noticeable differences. Horton used Jay Rudolph more as essentially a fullback. The NFL style shifting Jeff Hecklinski favored was not seen under Horton. 

The offense huddled instead of running to the line and looking to the sideline for the play call. It resulted in the first five-plus minute drive of the season for the offense. They had three of those on the night. SDSU won the time of possession for the first time this year. The Aztecs held the ball for 36:10 compared to 23:50 for Hawai’i.

Though they had the ball more, SDSU only had ten possessions on Saturday. It was their fewest of the season. 

After a slow start with four punts, SDSU’s offense scored on four of its next six possessions with a missed FG sandwiched between a TD and a pair of made FGs. With fewer drives each game, settling for field goals is magnified moving forward. The Aztecs earned four red zone opportunities but came away with only 13 points. Score touchdowns on those possessions, and Mayden’s heroics would not have been necessary.

Chance Bell was not given enough carries on the night. He was a difference maker that was not allowed to make a difference because Horton elected to spread carries among other running backs. The interior depth on the offensive line was tested again on Saturday, and the lack of a veteran reserve was apparent. Penalties also continue to hurt the team.

Defeating maybe the worst team in the conference by two points is no cause for celebration, but given the staff shakeups and the way the passing game responded, there is a lot to build on moving forward.

CJ Baskerville celebrates an incomplete pass. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

San Diego State Defense

Cornerbacks: B

Noah Tumblin and Dez Malone started again for the Aztecs, and they played the majority of the snaps until Hawaii’s third quarter, 66-yard touchdown pass to Zion Bowens. It is difficult to know if Tumblin should have had the deep zone on the play, but he was replaced by Dallas Branch on the next series. Even if that play counts against the corners, they more than held their own on Saturday. Hawai’i found success running the football, which isolated the CBs more, and they responded. Aside from the one deep pass, no other reception went over 20 yards. The unit accounted for 2.5 of SDSU’s three tackles for loss.

Safeties: C+

Davaughn Celestine and Cedarious Barfield continued to split reps at FW safety, with Celestine earning the start. Trenton and Tariq Thompson, the players who manned the position the past five seasons, were both excellent tacklers, and Celestine has shown to be adept at the skill this year. He made physical plays all over the field throughout the evening. Barfield also had a good game as a tackler. He led the team with six.

CJ Baskerville was mostly absent on the night. He had one tackle from his BW safety. The way the Aztecs employ him is to keep him in the middle of the field and to add a presence in the run game. He is too talented to disappear, though; he showed good range on a couple of deep passes. Patrick McMorris played well. He made a great play on a deep pass that would have gone for a score if he were two steps slower. 

Linebackers: A

SDSU’s defense played well on Saturday night. As much credit as Mayden and the hope he provides the offense, the only reason the team was still in the game was because the defense dominated for most of the contest. The story of the first half of the year was the Aztecs will only go as far as their defense will carry them. SDSU has been consistent scoring this season. Against FBS opponents, they have put up 20, 7, 17, 13, and 16 points. In their three victories, the defense gave up 7, 17, and 14 points.

No other unit is required to do more in defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix’ 2022 designs than the linebackers. Statistically, they had a below-average day, but in the scheme of what they were asked to do, they excelled. Their job was to play sideline to sideline, drop into passing lanes, tackle crossing routes, and fill holes in the run game. The point of Hawaii’s offense is to limit penetration by their formations. It works. Michigan only had two early in the year.  The lack of stats does not take away from the heart and soul of a defense that allowed 14 points and only one sustained drive all night.  

Jonah Tavai sporting number 99. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Defensive Line: C

The defensive line rotated more liberally than in previous weeks. Postgame, coach Hoke said they intentionally wanted to get more rest for the big guys up front. Dylan Taylor, Darrion Dalton, and Wyatt Draeger all had snaps early in the game and played throughout. Nassir Sims also spelled the starters. The oddest part of the defensive line story was Jonah Tavai getting his jersey ripped. Without a replacement, he wore 99 to start the second half. Hoke told Tavai, “Cameron Thomas would be proud.” Thomas, now in the NFL, wore that number the past few seasons.

Coaching: B

Game planning in college football is all about finding a team’s weaknesses from previous weeks and testing to see if a coaching staff has solved them. The book on the Aztecs in 2022 has been busted coverages, space for the slot receivers to work, trouble tackling on crossing routes, and runs up the middle. Until Mattix proves he is able to solve these issues, opposing coaches are going to make sure these are in their game plan.

One adjustment Mattix made to stop the inside run was to play Tavai inside when his brother Justus was not in the game. He also made sure Dalton or Sims was in the game manning the nose if either Tavai was unable. In weeks previous, he utilized smaller, quicker players there at times. Postgame, LB Caden McDonald put stopping the inside run on the players and not the scheme. He said defeating blocks was more important than anything his coach could do.  Mattix, though, needs to figure out how to get his defense to stop the run up the middle. The rest of the opponents on the Aztec schedule are not offensive juggernauts, but finding success in the middle of the defense will make them look like it.  

Max Garrison plays special teams against Hawai’i. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

San Diego State Special Teams

Kickers: B

Jack Browning’s first missed field goal of the year came at an inopportune time. His first career game-winner could not have arrived at a better moment. On the game-winner, Hawai’i called timeout to ice him, and Browning pulled the kick wide left. On the one that counted, he was true.

Browning’s kickoffs were short all night, but given his track record, that was likely by design. Hawai’i returned five kicks for 93 yards, none of those were returned past the 25, and their longest was 20 yards. Punting, Browning averaged 44.8 yards and dropped three inside the 20. The coverage team only allowed two yards on three returns.

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Returners: B

True freshman Max Garrison took Brionne Penny’s spot opposite Jordan Byrd on kickoff returns. Garrison was recruited as a safety before adding running back to his high school duties that rarely saw him leave the field. He was, a record-setting tailback at the position. A defender for the Aztecs, Garrison plays on every special teams unit. Taking advantage of what he can do with the ball in his hands is an exciting story for the season’s second half.

Jordan Byrd nearly had a kickoff return following the Rainbow Warriors’ third-quarter touchdown, but he misjudged the ball and had to settle for a touchback instead.

Mekhi Shaw and Jordan Byrd try to recover a muffed punt. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Coaching: A

It was clear Hawai’i did not want to kick off to the Aztecs. Inserting Garrison into the mix at returner was a good move by special teams coordinator Doug Deakin. A true freshman is a tempting target, and the Rainbow Warriors coaching staff might have changed their game plan.

Deakin’s hand was also seen in the first quarter. On fourth and two from SDSU’s 45, Hawai’i kept their offense on the field before calling a timeout. After thinking it over, they decided to punt. SDSU was caught off guard. Patrick McMorris ran to the sidelines and was waffling on whether to run off the field or stay on it. With multiple members of the coaching staff signaling him to just stay away from the ball, McMorris subbed with Matthews, who came in and fielded the punt. That precision comes only from a well-coached unit. 

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